Teen Discipline: Strategies and Challenges


Behavioral problems and effective solutions for Your 13- to 18-Year-Olds


By: Sarah Vanbuskirk 

When your child becomes a teenager, your parenting role begins to shift. You may find yourself becoming more of a guide rather than a rule-maker or teacher. That’s not to say your child won’t need you to intervene when there are safety issues or that your teen won’t need consequences. But, by now, it’s a good idea to let your child make more of their own decisions—even if you think it’s not the best choice. Just be sure to be there with structure, support, and empathy, as needed.

“Use of consistent expectations, praise, and consequences are important for teens, just as they are important for all children across development,” says Katharine Reynolds, PhD, a licensed psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado and assistant psychiatry professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Here, we’ll discuss common teen behaviors and discipline strategies you can employ.

Typical Teen Behaviors

Your teen will want more independence and privacy and have an increasing focus on their social lives. They may want to keep their social media conversations private, and they may spend a lot more time in their room with the door closed. “As many teens are at the end stages of puberty, their interest in romantic relationships will also increase,” says Dr. Reynolds.

“Teens are quite focused on and influenced by their social relationships with peers,” says Caroline Fulton, PsyD, a child and adolescent psychologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois. A growing interest in autonomy goes hand-in-hand with their increasing attention to their friends and the world beyond their families.

Teens like to test the limits of their independence, explains Dr. Fulton. So, don’t be surprised when your teen argues with you when you say no, or if they go behind your back to do as they please. Periodically, breaking curfew or other rules and making other mistakes is also common teen behavior. There’s also often a tug-of-war between parents and teens. Your child may demand your assistance one minute and claim they don’t need you the next.

Typical teen behavior varies quite a bit, but you may see the following:

  • They are more susceptible to the impacts of stress and lack of sleep than adults.
  • Their brains are still developing, so it is expected for them to be more emotionally volatile, impulsive, and risk-taking.
  • They may act more mature in some areas of their lives, but still child-like in others.
  • Your teen may show less of an interest in family time.
  • Your teen will want to spend more time on their appearance and exploring dating.

Common Teen Challenges

The many, sometimes tumultuous, changes of adolescence are a normal part of growing up. It can be tricky to strike a balance that gives your child enough freedom while still offering them plenty of guidance. However, while the goal is to develop their autonomy, it’s important to keep an eye out for mental health issues, such as stress or negative body image, unhealthy relationships like bullying or partner abuse, sleep issues, and dug use.

Typically, teens are self-conscious, very sensitive to criticism, and prone to question who they are and who they want to become, says Dr. Fulton. “Parents should aim to give their teens some space to express themselves, while also ensuring they are meeting basic responsibilities and behaving safely,” suggests Dr. Fulton.

Some common challenges for teens include the following:

  • Many teens want more freedom than they can handle, which may mean breaking rules and/or wanting a later curfew, unlimited access to their electronic devices, and/or a new phone. 
  • They may complain that you are too controlling or don’t get them, and/or lie to get out of trouble.
  • They may experiment with different personas, interests, and ways of dressing to express themself in new ways, some of which parents may not relate to or like.
  • Your teen may have a short temper, roll their eyes at you, and/or talk back.
  • Your teen may have relationship troubles, friend issues, and school-related problems.

Discipline Strategies That Work

Just because your teen has outgrown time-out doesn’t mean you can’t instill effective consequences. In fact, consequences, rather than punishments, are an effective way to influence your child’s behavior—and teach skills that may be lagging, says Dr. Reynolds.

Note, too, that many teens might actually be happy if they got sent to their rooms. That’s one solution that allows kids to calm down while they get some space and perspective. It’s important to find common sense, related consequences that will teach life lessons. Here are some of the most effective discipline strategies for teens.10

Open Dialogue

The bedrock of effective discipline is having open communication, trust, and respect between the parent and child. If you have frequent, nonjudgmental conversations with your child where you listen to what they have to say, they will feel heard and may be more likely to talk to you when challenges, such as handling peer pressure or drug and alcohol use.

“Proactive conversations about these topics are helpful for preparing your teen for when they encounter these things in their increasingly independent lives,” explains Dr. Reynolds. If you already have a positive communication channel open with your teen, they will be more likely to respond cooperatively to your disciplinary measures.

Praise and Rewards

Even though teens are increasing in their independence, acknowledgment for their accomplishments and efforts are important to continue to provide. “Highlighting your teen’s achievements and successes (either with verbal praise or another reward or acknowledgment) is an important strategy for developing and maintaining positive behaviors,” says Dr. Reynolds. This positive feedback will go a long way toward encouraging positive behavior, he explains.

Consistent House Rules

Just like for little kids, it is helpful for families to develop and maintain a set of “house rules” that are linked with an automatic consequence, such as loss of a privilege, when they are broken, suggests Dr. Reynolds. The key is to establish the rules and consequences before any infractions occur so that everyone knows what to expect.

“Have clear rules but make them simple and reasonable,” says Dr. Fulton. Also, be sure to explain to your teen why they’re important.

Consider generating your family’s house rules together with your teen. “This doesn’t mean your teen alone makes the rules, but you may be surprised to see that they can be quite reasonable about what they are seeking,” says Dr. Fulton. “They are also more likely to internalize and follow the expectations if they have been included in making them.”

Remove Privileges

If your teen violates the rules, they may be showing you they can’t handle the freedom you’re giving them, explains Dr. Reynolds. Tighten the rules by giving them an earlier curfew or by reducing the amount of time they spend using their electronics.

From smartphones to laptopsscreen time is important to most teenagers. Restricting your teen’s phone privileges can be an effective consequence. Just make sure it’s time-limited. Usually, 24 hours is long enough to send a clear message to your teen.

If your teen’s misbehavior involves friends, first discuss their actions and then make adjustments to their social privileges, suggests Dr. Reynolds. A break from their buddies, while discussing their behavior, can help build a foundation for better choices in the future. When your teen is able to show you that they can be responsible, they can have the opportunity to earn their privileges back.

Know that your child may not always be happy with your decisions or want to face the consequences of breaking rules. “Expecting to be liked by your child all of the time may make it hard to set and enforce limits,” says Dr. Fulton.

Natural Consequences

Natural consequences can be the best teachers in certain situations. But it’s important to make sure the natural consequences will really teach your teen a life lesson. For example, if they refuse to wear a coat, they may end up cold. Or if they don’t study for a test, they may not do well. Or if they don’t take a lunch to school, they’ll likely end up hungry. In these types of circumstances, it can be instructive to back off and let your teen face the consequences of their choices.10

“It’s hard to see your child be upset when you enforce a consequence or tell them they can’t do something, but having clear and predictable limits actually creates an environment of safety and predictability,” explains Dr. Fulton.

If your teen breaks something, make them pay to fix it. Or, if they are irresponsible with the car, take away their driving privileges. Whenever possible, create consequences that are directly tied to the poor decision or mistake your teen made.11

Assign Extra Responsibilities

If your teenager’s behavior hurts someone else, create a plan to make amends. This is also called restitution or restorative justice. Apologizing is the first step, followed by doing something to make up for the wrong they did. For instance, fixing something they broke or doing an extra chore for someone may help repair the relationship and remind them to accept responsibility for their behavior.11

Avoid Power Struggles

When your teen says, “That’s not fair!” or “I’ll do it later,” resist the temptation to argue. Set a firm limit and follow through with a consequence, says Dr. Fulton. Make it clear that they don’t have to like your decision and it’s fine to be upset. Their emotions are always welcome, but that doesn’t change that they need to follow what you say. So, aim to stay calm and empathetic while also staying true to your choice. Moreover, avoid getting sucked into a heated power struggle.

“Your child will sometimes be frustrated or upset with you, and that does not mean you are doing something wrong,” says Dr. Reynolds.

Whether your teen wants expensive basketball sneakers or asks to have a later bedtime, make it clear that privileges must be earned. If your teen’s behavior doesn’t warrant privileges, don’t allow them to have them. Do your best to be reasonable and be willing to listen to your child’s perspective—and help them find a pathway toward earning whatever freedom or goal they want to achieve.

If your 16-year-old sits in their room and plays video games all day, they may not be misbehaving. But, they might still need some discipline to help them socialize and behave more responsibly. “Ensure that your teen gets time away from screens and support them in engaging with healthy sources of entertainment,” says. Dr. Fulton. Provide discipline that helps your child do better, not just punishment for wrongdoing.

Brainstorm Solutions

If your teen has broken a rule or been disrespectful, consider brainstorming possible solutions with them. Ask them what happened, what they think about their behavior, and how they might make up for it. Listen while they suggest possible reasonable consequences for their actions. You can add some of your own. Then, you can discuss the pros and cons of each option before deciding which one you think makes the most sense.

Be sure to have this conversation at a time when you’re both calm and have had a chance to think things through. You don’t need to go with your teen’s suggestion, particularly if it lets them off the hook for their infraction. However, you might find that talking through possible disciplinary actions gets them more engaged in making amends and doing better in the future. This approach also turns a misstep into a learning opportunity you can both feel good about.

Preventing Future Problems

Aim to find the right balance between letting your teen try out new freedoms and offering guidance and structure, suggests Dr. Reynolds. Behave like an overprotective helicopter parent and your teenager won’t learn how to make healthy decisions or experience the repercussions of their actions. If you’re too permissive, however, they also won’t gain the skills they need to become a responsible adult. Instead, try these strategies to prevent behavior problems in teenagers.

Have Clear Expectations

Make your expectations clear. Before you drop your teen off at the movies or you let them walk to the skate park alone, make sure that they know the plan. Tell them what you want them to do if they encounter a problem and what time you expect them to be home. If there are other parameters, such as staying at a certain friend’s house or calling to check in, be sure they know what those are, too.

“Avoid giving your teen full decision-making without oversight. While teens are increasingly capable, they still need to be given boundaries and limits,” says Dr. Fulton.

Your teen will often live up to your expectations, as long as those expectations are reasonable and developmentally appropriate. So, for example, you might it clear that you expect them to do well in school, use respectful language, keep their room clean, or get their chores done every day. If you find that they are struggling to follow your expectations, investigate why. Sometimes, they might not be ready for the task or they may need to learn how to do it effectively.

When you give your teen a new privilege, like a smartphone or a later curfew, create a behavior contract. Review the expectations and outline the consequences for breaking the rules. Have them sign the contract before they get the privilege—and follow through on the consequences, if needed.

Listen to Your Child

While it’s important to have effective communication with children of all ages, once they are teenagers, it becomes key to do less of the talking. With teens, you want to take the time to listen, ask questions, and support your child’s journey toward figuring out their own solutions to their problems. Talking out their issues with you can help them understand what they are feeling and help them cope with whatever is going on.

Do your best to communicate without being overly reactive or judgmental, says Dr. Fulton. “Be firm and clear, without being cruel or losing control of your own emotions and behavior.”

Remember, the less you say, the more you hear about what’s going on in your teen’s life. Do your best not to jump in with advice or reprimands. Instead, when feasible, aim to be as neutral as possible and ask them what they think the best way to handle something is. Often, if you ask the right questions and listen with true curiosity and empathy, your child gets the opportunity to problem solve, vent, and share in a safe, productive way.

Additionally, be sure to be reasonable in your rules and expectations. “Use caution not to be overly restrictive. If your child is not allowed any latitude, they may resort to breaking rules in secret,” advises Dr. Fulton.

Spend Time Together

Give your teen positive attention to build a solid foundation for your relationship. Be willing to step into your teen’s world by learning how to play a video game or by watching a teen movie. Or shoot hoops with them, go on a hike, do an art project, or listen to music they like. Essentially, if it’s an activity they enjoy, they will be even more enthusiastic—and it shows them you are interested in them and their preferences.

Be a good role model, too. Your teen learns more by watching what you do, rather than hearing what you say. So, make sure you’re being a good role model, from getting regular physical activity and limiting your own screen time to apologizing when you’ve done something wrong.

Communication Tips

You might find your teen can’t stop talking to their friends. But the minute you ask how their day was, they might have nothing to say. Communicating with your teen may feel like an uphill battle sometimes. But, it’s important to keep trying.

Communicate Regularly

Healthy communication is at the heart of any good relationship. It’s advisable to talk about everything from peer pressure to their goals for the future. When your teen knows they can talk to you, they’ll be more likely to seek your guidance.

Insisting your teen sit down and talk to you face-to-face about serious subjects may cause your teen to shut down. Instead, opt for more frequent, casual chats. You might find your teen is more willing to talk when you’re doing an activity together, such as playing catch, walking the dog, or even riding in the car. You can also ask them when a good time is for them to have a conversation.

“Separate your child’s actions from who they are as an individual. Ensure your child knows they are loved and supported, even when they inevitably make mistakes,” advises Dr. Fulton.

Most of all, it’s important for your child to know they always have you to talk to, so aim to be non-judgmental and to listen to what they have to say. Also, it’s key for them to know that you care about what’s going on in their life, says Dr. Reynolds. Also, it keeps them accountable for their behavior if they know you will always be there asking questions and checking on them.


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